PASADENA, CALIF. - First there was J. Fred Muggs on the "Today" show.
Then came "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp" on Saturday mornings, followed by the "Bear" of "B.J. and the Bear" in prime time and even the short-lived "Mr. Smith."
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'The Chimp Channel'
When: 10:05 p.m. Thursday on TBS.
Starring: A barrel of monkeys
But for the past decade, monkey TV stars have been limited to guest spots by Marcel on "Friends," nature specials and Animal Planet. That changed with TBS's "Monkey-ed Movies," a 1998 series of shorts starring an all-simian cast in pop culture parodies.
Their popularity led TBS to create a regular series, "The Chimp Channel," premiering at 10:05 p.m. Thursday. The show is set behind-the-scenes at a television network run by monkeys. Yes, this could be a true story, but it's fiction since TCC doesn't exist - yet.
"The show is basically half behind-the-scenes like 'Larry Sanders,' half TV sketch comedy," said creator Tom Stern in a January meeting with TV critics. The sketches are clips from TCC shows, including "Treewatch," a city park spoof of "Baywatch" that stars the network's No. 1 bombshell, Marina.
"She's a cross between a Madonna and a Pamela Lee," said co-executive producer Tim Burns. "Marina is sort of like consummate sex, if your idea of sex is a chimp with long blond hair and clingy gowns."
Other media figures parodied include Ted Turner rival Rupert Murdoch (TCC's owner is an Australian media tycoon) and CNN's Larry King (he's aped by Murray Price, TCC's celebrity interviewer).
"[Murray] is a consummate ladies' man, in his mind, which is probably the reason he's been married eight or 12 times," said producer Skot Bright.
"If you get close to him, you can actually smell the Viagra," Stern said.
While "Monkey-ed Movies" spoofed big-screen films, "The Chimp Channel" will go after movies and TV and sundry other aspects of pop culture.
"We like to create our own concepts and combine things," Stern said. "Like, 'Armageddon: The Series,' where there's always a comet every week."
"Every week it's the size of a different state," Burns added.
Stern said the slight difference in human and simian DNA gives humans a primordial connection to the hairier species.
"When you get with a chimp in a room, there's an intense connection that everybody gets that's not like a dog or a cat or anything else," he said. "They're just barely on the edge of consciousness, and it's fascinating."
For the purpose of creating laughs, Stern said chimps are a comedy writer's best friend. "Something that sounds lame coming out of an actor's mouth, can often be quite funny coming out of a chimp's mouth."
It's not all fun times making "The Chimp Channel." The American Humane Association is on the set at all times and animal trainer Denise Sanders monitors the monkeys.
"We know when they're tired, we know when they're getting bored," Sanders said. "So we'll say, we need to move on and do something different."
Sanders said the animals are trained to open and close their mouths to approximate the human speaking voices that are dubbed in later.
"We'll break everything down into little steps," Sanders said. "We put it in terms they can understand and then we add it all together."
Bright said animal trainers read scripts for "The Chimp Channel" in advance to determine whether scenes that are proposed are achievable.
"Specific training for the chimps or the orangutans is they understand what we're saying because it's all through repetition," Sanders said. "Usually they like to work because it's very stimulating for them. However, they do have short attention spans, so if they've done it for 10 takes and they're just burnt out on it, we move on to something different."
Even when the chimps get tired, there's one sure-fire movement they can make, Stern said as he slapped the palm of his hand on his forehead.
"If nothing else, we end the skit that way."